US coach Jurgen Klinsmann warned on Monday that the two favorites, Mexico and the US, will face a difficult fight to reach next year’s World Cup finals in final-round qualifying that starts today.
“There’s no easy way, not for Mexico, not for United States, not for anybody,” the former German international said. “You have to work hard. You have to get your points. You have to respect every opponent.”
The US open their qualifying campaign in Honduras, while Jamaica’s Reggae Boyz visit Mexico and Panama play host to Costa Rica.
The three top teams after 10 round-robin matches qualify for the finals in Brazil, while the fourth-placed team face the Oceania winner for another berth.
“Every World Cup qualifying round is unique and CONCACAF is tricky in its own way,” Klinsmann said. “It will challenge you severely. It’s all about determination and commitment.”
“The way our players have presented themselves in training, it looks like they are ready,” added Klinsmann, who guided hosts Germany to the 2006 World Cup semi-finals.
The US were pushed to the final match before advancing in last year’s semi-final round.
“One thing we learned from the semi-final round is that you have to bring the right mentality to play in the tough games on the road and I’m confident we are ready to do that,” Klinsmann said. “We want to have a sense of urgency right from the start ... We’re ready to be focused in every one of those 10 games, and be sharp and alert. If it goes down to the last game, we’ll be prepared to the maximum.”
The US lineup features forwards Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore, goalkeeper Tim Howard and new faces in midfield and defense, although there are some veterans also in the mix.
AS Roma’s Michael Bradley has five US goals and 19 caps, but none of his fellow midfielders have found the net and six have fewer than 10 caps, while Carlos Bocanegra’s 31 caps are 20 more than the other eight US defenders combined.
Honduras come off a trip to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and feature New England Revolution forward Jerry Bengtson and Wigan Athletic midfielder Roger Espinoza.
“We have a lot of respect for this team,” Klinsmann said. “They have Bengtson, who can always harm an opponent. You have Espinoza in the midfield, who has a wonderful touch.”
The US have a 12-3-3 all-time record against Honduras, but the Catrachos know they need maximum points from every home match.
“The hexagonal is going to be very tight, so the most important thing is to make home advantage count,” Honduras defender Victor Bernardez of the San Jose Earthquakes said. “Trying to make history is part of the package. We know what’s at stake. We’ve had some very tough games. That’s helping us prepare for what’s ahead. We’re doing the right things and we’re getting stronger.”
Manchester United’s Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez is set to spark Mexico against Jamaica, with the Tricolor holding a formidable 17-1-2 record over their opponents.
Hernandez has scored 28 goals in 43 appearances for Mexico, who have not lost a qualifier since 2009, but Reggae Boyz coach Theodore Whitmore likes his side’s chances of reaching the World Cup finals for the first time since 1998.
“We can qualify for Brazil. It’s within us to do so,” Whitmore said. “History beckons.”
Costa Rica visit Panama chasing a World Cup berth after being edged out by Honduras in 2010, the Ticos missing out by surrendering a goal to the US in stoppage-time in their final match.
“We all want to go to Brazil, so we work hard every practice to improve,” Panama defender Roy Miller of the New York Red Bulls said.
“It’s an important time for everyone. Panama is a tough team. It will be a difficult game,” he said.